Image: ILLUSTRATION by Ambar Del Moral/Mashable

Samsung has a new voice. And it has world-changing ambitions.

In the upcoming Galaxy S8, users will find an extra button on the left side of the phone, just below the volume controls. Pressing it will activate Bixby, Samsung’s new voice assistant. Once activated, Bixby will help you navigate what’s arguably the most sophisticated piece of technology you own the smartphone in your hand.

If Samsung gets its wish, though, Bixby will eventually do much more than just help you order Lyfts or set up complex calendar appointments. The long-term vision is for Bixby to act as a kind of uber-interface for all of Samsung’s products: TVs, wearables, washing machines, even remote controls.

Samsung designed Bixby with a specific goal in mind, one that veers away from its fellow voice assistants Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, Microsoft’s Cortana and the Google Assistant. Those platforms were generally built to help users quickly perform common tasks (“Remind me to buy milk”) and perform search queries (“What’s the capital of Brazil?”). Bixby, on the other hand, is all about making the phone itself easier to use, replicating the functions of many apps with voice commands.

Yes, Siri et al. already do that to a certain extent you can easily set a reminder with your voice, for example but the voice integration typically only handles the basics. The goal of Bixby is to voice-enable every single action in an app that you’d normally do via touch, starting with Samsung’s apps. So, not just “set a reminder to buy pickles at 6 p.m., but “Set a reminder on my Shopping List to buy pickles at 6 p.m. and make it repeat every week, then share the list with my wife.”

Bixby speaks

Injong Rhee, CTO of Samsung Mobile and the architect behind Bixby, says the voice assistant is nothing short of an “interface revolution,” freeing users from hunting down hidden functionality within menus and hard-to-find screens.

“Bixby is an intelligent user interface, emphasis… on ‘interface,'” Rhee says. “A lot of agents are looking at being knowledgeable, meaning that you can ask questions like, ‘Who’s president of the U.S.?’ A lot of these are glorified extensions of search. What we are doing with Bixby, and what Bixby is capable of doing, is developing a new interface to our devices.”

Bixby architect Injong Rhee, CTO of Samsung Mobile.

Image: Pete Pachal/Mashable

Although it makes its debut on the Galaxy S8, it will soon spread. Rhee sees the Bixby button eventually spreading to all kinds of smart-home devices, from TVs to refrigerators to air conditioners.

“Anywhere there is an internet connection and a microphone, Bixby can be used,” he says. “There is some technology in the device, but a lot of it lives in the cloud. That’s why the range of devices goes beyond just a smartphone. It means it can be in any device we produce.”

“Anywhere there is an internet connection and a microphone, Bixby can be used.”

Samsung began work on Bixby about 18 months ago, Rhee says. It grew out of the company’s S Voice tool, which has been on Samsung phones since 2012. (The timing might explain why Samsung’s smart fridge announced right around then failed to deliver on its planned integration with Alexa.) S Voice hadn’t progressed much over the years, but then last year Samsung acquired the much-hyped Viv Labs and its sophisticated assistant, a strong indicator of the company’s renewed interest in voice control. However, Rhee says Viv’s technology is planned for future updates to Bixby and doesn’t have a role in the initial release.

The name Bixby came out of Samsung’s focus groups, but it was actually their third choice overall. It was the top pick among millennials a demographic the company is specifically targeting with the Galaxy S8 so it won out. (Rhee declined to say what the other names were.) It’s also distinctive enough, with hard consonants, for it to work well as an activation word. Bixby, which will initially speak just English and Korean, is intended to be a user’s “bright sidekick,” helping them navigate their devices in a more natural way.

“[What came before], it’s been people trying to learn how the machine interacts with the world, but… it should be the machine learns how the human interacts with the world,” Rhee says. “The learning curve shouldn’t be steep.”

All talk, all action

For an app to be considered Bixby-supported, every possible touch action needs to be mapped to a voice command. Rhee explains that, for a typical app, there are about 300 different actions the user can perform. That doesn’t sound too bad until you consider there are around 15,000 different ways to perform them. And the ways to verbalize those actions number in the millions. That’s a lot of stuff to map out.

Still, Samsung says it’s up for the challenge, at least as far as its built-in apps are concerned. But what about third-party apps? Considering the amount of development work, will Snapchat or Facebook ever work as well with Bixby as Samsung’s apps?

Bixby will take you as far as it can rather than just hitting you with a, “Sorry, I didn’t catch that.”

Rhee says Samsung has a plan to get third-party apps talking to Bixby, and an SDK to be released at a later date will introduce tools that make the mapping much easier. He also suggests Viv’s technology can help here, too.

“Viv Labs is coming in by way expanding our vision into third-party ecosystems. It doesn’t necessarily have to be all of the touch commands that they can perform. At a minimum, [Bixby will perform] the basic functionalities: like the settings, or changing the language from English to French.”

On the Galaxy S8, a total of 10 apps will be Bixby-supported, Rhee says, with a second “wave” coming a few weeks later. Out of the gate, users will be able to use Bixby with Contacts, Gallery, Settings, Camera, Reminders and a few others.

Another way Bixby is different from its peers: it will be aware of what you’re doing on the phone and suggest different actions depending on what’s on screen. So if you press the button while, say, looking at a single photo in the Gallery, editing and sharing controls are probably more relevant to you than searching. And if Bixby doesn’t understand every aspect of a complex command, it will take you as far as it can rather than just hitting you with a “Sorry, I didn’t catch that.”

All this “awareness” brings up an important question: How much data is Samsung collecting about you? Rhee says most user-specific data is kept on the device, but, as a cloud service, Bixby needs to store some information in the cloud. It’s not yet clear what the exact breakdown is.

The button

Having a dedicated button for Bixby brings a number of advantages. For starters, it means Samsung won’t have any need for Clippy-style pop-ups directing users to the assistant people will inevitably find it on their own. It also ensures there will be far fewer accidental activations than if Bixby were mixed into a home button something users of Siri are all too familiar with.

“We actually have done a lot of research to have the Bixby button as part of the home button like our friends in Cupertino,” Rhee says. “A lot of people find it a little awkward to use it in public. The home button is a very overloaded place there’s a lot of functionality into it. Having a dedicated button really removes a lot of friction.”

It’s the dedicated button that really epitomizes Samsung’s approach.

And since the idea is to press and hold, lifting your finger when you’re done, Bixby will know definitively when you’re done speaking. Still, there will also be a wake-up phrase you can just say “Hi Bixby,” to activate the assistant at any time.

It’s the dedicated button that really epitomizes Samsung’s approach, and if it indeed ends up on all Samsung products, Bixby will become much more than just a smartphone assistant it’ll become the gateway for Samsung to finally, truly become a major player in the internet of things.

Sure, Samsung has had its “Smart” devices for a long time, and its low-power Tizen OS is ideal for powering the many products with connections to the internet. It also acquired SmartThings in 2014 to strengthen its IoT brand.

But until now, Samsung has lacked a gateway for its customers to really take advantage of that interconnectivity. For most, it’s hard work hunting down the right settings on your phone to connect a smart TV to an air conditioner, but what if you could just tell Bixby to do it? And if you can talk to it from all those devices asking any question or even making phone calls then you’re really onto something.

“It’s actually omnipresent in a sense,” Rhee says. “Even if I speak to Bixby in, say, a washing machine, you can still do a lot of things that you do on your phone. For instance, you can say, ‘Bixby, send a text to my friend Michael,’ or ‘Make a phone call.’ That’s the vision.”

The more capable assistant

Amazon and Google already know this, and the success of Alexa and buzz around Home are a testament to the unquestionable efficiency of adding voice control to devices. But Samsung, with its high standard of controlling all functions of a device via Bixby, might end up with the advantage. Alexa, for all of its “skills,” often falls short of full control (you can turn on or dim LED lights, for example, but might not be able to select specific colors), so the market has room for a more capable competitor. Of course, how and when Bixby will mix with third-party products and services remains an open question.

“Philosophically, what we are looking at is revolutionizing phone interfaces,” Rhee says. “We understand our applications better than anybody else out there that’s why we started with our own technology, but going forward we have plans to work with our partners.”

Bixby may be the best thing to happen to Samsung software in a long time.

Eventually, Rhee says a Bixby app might come to non-Samsung Android phones and even iOS, possibly partnering with Google Assistant for search-related queries (though he cautions Google and Samsung haven’t “gotten to the specifics” on how that would work).

At the same time, Bixby control could extend to all kinds of smart products, not just Samsung ones. That would probably take a level of cooperation with competitors that Samsung hasn’t really shown before, but if Bixby becomes ubiquitous in the long term, whatever OS this or that device is running will become less relevant.

That’s a future Samsung is clearly hoping for, since software has traditionally been its weakness. Samsung may be a chief Android partner, but it’s struggled to differentiate its many services from Google’s, and the company lacks an OS of its own (Tizen notwithstanding). Samsung’s browser, Samsung Pay, S Health they’re all duplicates of Google products, and are widely regarded as inferior.

That’s why Bixby may be the best thing to happen to Samsung software in a long time. If customers respond, Bixby could, in the long term, finally get Samsung users to think of its phones as Samsung phones rather than just the best-performing Android phones on the market. All Android vendors try to differentiate to some extent, but Bixby’s app-simplifying skills and potential IoT capabilities are a compelling sell.

Bixby represents an important step for Samsung when it comes to services: finally a good answer to “Why should I use your software?” Effortless voice control of everything not just your phone is a tantalizing promise, and if Samsung can pull it off in the long term, its “bright sidekick” might end up being the only assistant we actually want to talk to.

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(CNN)The White House has instructed the State Department and the US mission to the United Nations to cut their budgets for UN programs nearly in half, including US peacekeeping and development assistance, two senior US officials told CNN on Monday.

The dramatic cuts, which include a 37%, or $20 billion, slash in funding for the State Department and the US Agency for International Development, reflect a desire by the Trump administration to reduce US commitments to international organizations.
Foreign Policy first reported the details of the White House’s proposal to dramatically reduce spending on foreign aid.
    US diplomats in New York had warned their UN counterparts about the likely “steep” cuts to US funding for the UN, one Western diplomat said, but not provided any details.
    The White House wants to cut the programs funded out of the State Department’s Bureau of International Organization Affairs by half, the US officials said. While the cuts would impact UN programs the most, the White House also wants to reduce US dues to other international organizations and ask other member states to pick up the slack.
    For example, the US pays 21% of the operating budget of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, which promotes democracy and good governance, particularly in Europe. Japan pays the second-highest dues at about 12%. The White House wants to drop US dues to Japan’s level.
    “Everyone else is going to have to step up,” one senior official said.
    The White House also wants to reduce funding for voluntary assessments and programs for all international organizations. The United States funds certain programs or positions in organizations such as the UN, the Organization of American States and other international bodies beyond its regular dues as a member state. Officials said such expenditures would end under the new plan.
    It is unclear what the exact timeline is for the cuts, officials said. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has proposed making the reductions over three years, arguing that he needs more than one budget cycle.
    After “several tough exchanges” with Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, one official said Tillerson has been granted some flexibility as to where the State Department budget cuts are directed.
    “He said, ‘You give me a number and I will make the cuts,’ ” one senior administration official said. “He doesn’t want to be told what to cut.”
    Trump and Mulvaney warned that deep cuts were coming to foreign aid programs last month while previewing the administration’s first budget proposal at the Conservative Political Action Conference.
    “The President said we’re going to spend less money overseas and spend more of it here,” Mulvaney noted while referencing the proposal last month. “That’s going to be reflected with the number we send to the State Department.”
    But Trump could face a fight when it comes to trimming the wings of state — possibly from within his own administration.
    Defense Secretary James Mattis, for instance, warned against cutting diplomatic resources during congressional testimony in 2013.
    And last month, several prominent generals like David Petraeus and admirals like James Stavridis, the former supreme commander of NATO, wasted little time in mobilizing to challenge his proposals.
    They joined a list of 121 military figures who warned that State Department diplomacy, aid and programs were vital to preventing conflict overseas and could mitigate the need for costly and bloody military deployments.

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    Who will it be?
    Image: mashable/Christopher Mineses

    From the moment that SpaceX’s Elon Musk announced the company’s intention to send two unnamed people in a long loop around the moon in 2018, people started speculating about who those mystery passengers might be.

    Musk didn’t give out many clues about the individuals who contracted the company for the flight, aside from saying that they put down a hefty deposit and they know each other.

    However, that won’t stop us from wildly speculating about who the maybe famous and definitely rich folks flying to the moon with SpaceX might be.

    Richard Branson

    Yes, yes, its true that Richard Branson has his own commercial spaceflight program in Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit, but Virgin isnt aiming for the moon right now.

    Therefore, this SpaceX offering wouldn’t be in direct competition with his own favorite space plans as of right now.

    Branson is eccentric and daring enough to want to fly to the moon, so it would follow that he could be the one contracting SpaceX to fly him in a long loop above the lunar surface.

    A hover test of the Dragon capsule built for crew.

    Image: spacex/flickr

    James Cameron

    Even though Musk specifically said that the people contracting SpaceX to fly them to the moon aren’t from Hollywood, we’re still leaving Titanic director James Cameron on this list.

    Cameron has been a space fan for a long while, and in 2011, it was reported that he shelled out more than $100 million for a flight around the moon with Space Adventures, a private firm that pairs would-be space tourists with their rides to orbit. He has yet to take his trip, so who knows, maybe he’s one of the people who’s opted to ride with SpaceX.

    Cameron is also an adventurer who supports scientific inquiry. In 2012 he dove deep into the Mariana Trench, breaking a world record for the deepest solo dive in the process.

    South Parkhas even made fun of his somewhat odd penchant for exploration, so this doesn’t seem outside of the realm of possibility for “the bravest pioneer.”

    Random billionaires

    In all likelihood, the people who already put down a deposit with SpaceX are probably folks we’ve never heard of.

    In order to fly on a flight like this one, you basically just need a lot of expendable income millions and millions of dollars of it and a will to head out into the unknown. Plus, you probably need a lot of time on your hands for training and the like.

    Don’t be surprised if Musk announces that a couple of CEOs for huge international corporations are the ones asking to head to the moon on this first flight.


    Artist’s illustration of the Falcon Heavy rocket.

    Image: spacex

    Even though Musk said that a couple of private individuals were the ones contracting SpaceX for this flight, it’s still possible that NASA astronauts could be the first people to fly on SpaceX’s system.

    Musk made it clear that if NASA wanted to take the flight profile for itself, then SpaceX would absolutely let them fly the first flight of the Dragon and Falcon Heavy bound for the moon.

    SpaceX owes a lot to NASA, particularly because the space agency’s significant investments in the company have helped it stay afloat since its founding in 2002.

    NASA already has an uncrewed mission to circumnavigate the moon on the books for 2018 or 2019, so it’s possible that the agency will want to cooperate with SpaceX on some kind of moon venture in the future.

    Sergey Brin

    Google co-founder and current president Sergey Brin might be one of the best guesses we have for the person heading to the moon with SpaceX.

    Brin once put down some money with Space Adventures for a flight to the International Space Station, but he has yet to fly.

    Brin is also involved with the Google Lunar X Prize, a competition designed to spark commercial development of the moon by awarding a $20 million prize to the first private company to fly to and land a spacecraft on the moon and perform a series of specific tasks.

    Please just let one of them be a woman

    The only people who have ever flown to the surface of the moon or its general vicinity have been men.

    I’d say it’s about time a woman made it there, don’t you?

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